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Porn had by then become something of a civic booster — it kept old, sometimes historic buildings erect. Screening dirty movies was a cheap way to profitably use what once were family-friendly neighborhood movie theaters, structures that had by the 1960s become obsolete and expensive to maintain.
Places like the Strand had aged from glistening meccas to respectable second-run movie houses. Hollywood sent its hottest releases first to the big palaces in a city's urban core, and next to smaller, neighborhood theaters — places that were, in Kansas City, built along thriving streetcar lines. KC's busiest streetcar routes followed Main, Troost, Prospect, and Independence Avenue; dozens of movie theaters dotted those thoroughfares. But the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the 1948 United States v. Paramount Pictures antitrust case leveled the old distribution platform, and within a couple of decades the second-run cinema would be a thing of the past.
"We get a lot of customers who come in and remember watching movies here when they were kids," says Michael Inman, who has worked behind the front counter of the Strand for five years. He was one of those children himself. "I grew up near here," he says. "A relative would bring me here to watch movies in the late 1950s."
The Strand was a popular family theater for decades. A newspaper advertisement from January 10, 1953, lists that day's shows — a double feature of The Asphalt Jungle, with Marilyn Monroe, and The Skipper Surprised His Wife, with Robert Walker — and a further incentive: "A free comic book for every boy and girl."
When the Strand Theatre opened in 1916, there were 25 other neighborhood movie houses operating in the city. Many of those small theaters are still standing, though not in use. Some have been converted to churches (the Prospect, the Oak Park) or warehouses. When Snow bought the Strand, two other historic small theaters were flourishing as porn palaces: the 1912 Kimo Theater, at 3319 Main (Snow turned it into the Dove in 1979), and the 1923 Rockhill Theater (at 46th Street and Troost). Both structures have since been razed.
"They didn't show movies at the old Rockhill," Snow says. "They had peep-show arcades and naked girls who danced behind glass windows."
There was also the Old Chelsea, in the River Market, but that structure had been built as a warehouse. Until it stopped showing adult films in 2000, it was the most glamorous place in town to see an X-rated film — relatively speaking, anyway. "It always seemed clean," one regular customer says. "It didn't smell like the Strand."
The Strand does have its own peculiar fragrance, the smell of old arousal. It's a suite of disinfectant, bodily fluids, cheap aftershave — and popcorn.
There's a small popper at the front counter, near the entrance. The bags of popcorn are small but free for the asking, and they sit near the space where the original concession stand used to be, when this was a prouder kind of cinema.
"The Strand had a wonderful candy assortment," says a 70-something woman who attended matinee shows at the theater in the 1940s, "much better than the one at the Isis, down the street."
A forlorn, coin-operated vending machine now sits near the auditorium entrance. There isn't much of a selection — a couple of candy bars, a few bags of chips — for the patron who might feel hunger pangs after watching scenes of anal sex.